The period between 1840 and 1850 saw what were perhaps the most sweeping and revolutionary changes in our Navy and our merchant marine ever to occur in so short a time. Indeed, although their genesis lay in this period, some of these changes were so far-reaching that their full effect was not appreciated until years later.
This decade witnessed the first seagoing American steam man-of-war, the first iron warship, the first screw warship, the initiation of the first armored twin-screw warship, the first American trans-Atlantic steamship, the first ocean-going, iron, screw-propelled steamer, the first compartmented vessel, the first ship to be built with a double bottom, and the first American vessel to be fitted with- a surface condenser. These technical developments drastically altered the entire picture for both our naval and our merchant vessels and each service reacted upon, and was partly responsible for, the technical developments within the other.
Apart from these technical matters but greatly affecting both military and commercial shipping in this country were the political and economic events of the same decade: the settlement of the Oregon boundary, the first subsidy to American shipping, the brief war with Mexico, the cession of California, the commencement of the Panama Railroad, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, the chartering of the Nicaragua Canal, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, and the repeal of the British Navigation Acts.
The school books credit Fulton with the first practical and commercial steam vessel, the Clermont, in 1807. This is probably correct, for the earlier efforts of Fitch and Rumsey never matured. But in 1804 Colonel John L. Stevens, a man far ahead of his day, had constructed an experimental open steamboat with an efficient engine turning twin propellers through a gear drive.1 He had under construction in 1807 a full-sized side- wheel steamer, the Phoenix. The Clermont, powered with an engine made by Boulton and Watt, made her trip up the Hudson before the Phoenix was finished and thus, with powerful aid from Chancellor Livingston, Fulton secured the exclusive franchise for steam navigation in the waters of New York State. Because of this Stevens was obliged to send the Phoenix, upon completion, around to Delaware Bay. This trip was the first seagoing voyage by steamer in the world.
The tight monopoly given to Fulton limited steam navigation on the Hudson to his three vessels, but steam rapidly spread on the Ohio and the Mississippi, where sail could not be used,2 and led to the development of a group of engine builders in the country, somewhat rule of thumb and of course initially limited by lack of machine tools and of facilities for large forgings. However, steam pressures were low, close tolerances were unheard of, and castings were adequate for the current stresses.
In 1814 Fulton designed and built for the Navy the Demologos, or Fulton I, for action against the British fleet blockading New York. This was a sort of floating battery of heavy construction, with a single paddle wheel working in an internal trough. The The Demologos made about five knots and was the first steam warship in the world. She might have prevented a close blockade of the port had she been completed in time.
Congress was sufficiently impressed with the Demologos to authorize the construction of another steam war vessel. The Navy apparently did not share this favorable opinion. The Demologos had been wholly planned and built outside of naval circles, and the only naval contributions were made after Fulton’s death when the ship was fitted with masts and sails and a high gunwale on the spar deck. Otherwise it was obviously a monstrosity, totally alien to naval thinking. No action on the authorized second steamer was taken for twenty years.
In the meantime the number of commercial steamships was steadily increasing. As early as 1820 a small steamer named after Fulton was placed on the New York, Charleston, Havana, and New Orleans run and gave service for five years. The Supreme Court decision of 1824 in Ogden vs. Gibbons destroyed the monopoly principle on state waterways and led to the building of river and sound steamers by Drew, Vanderbilt and George Law. This in turn built up the engine and boiler industry under capable engineers such as Allaire, Copeland, Morgan, Secor, and Haswell. Thus, thirty years after the Clermont, marine engineering had attained a sound and dependable status under commercial development while no one in the naval establishment was versed in its most elementary principles.
In 1835 Matthew C. Perry induced the Board of Commissioners of the Navy to commence the steam warship that had been authorized by Congress in 1815. This vessel, the Fulton II, was designed as a wooden, side-wheel, harbor-defense steamer of 1200 tons. Since no naval officer could even lay down a broad set of specifications for her machinery, the Board turned to Charles W. Copeland of the West Point Foundry for the design and construction of the engines and boilers.
Perry supervised the building of the ship and proposed the necessary complement for the engine department and their rank, status, and pay. By so doing and by the selection of Haswell as Chief Engineer and John Faron and Nelson Burt as assistants, he laid the foundation of the Engineer Corps of the Navy. He rightfully earned the title of Father of the Steam Navy, but he and the Navy were utterly dependent upon the civilian experience which had already been gained in the use of steam in commercial vessels.
On April 23, 1838, not long after the completion of the Fulton II, strollers along the Battery in New York were amazed to see a small steamer flying the British flag come sliding up the bay. This was the little Sirius which had left Liverpool nineteen days earlier.3 The amazement was compounded when within four hours a second British steamer, the Great Western,4 came up the Narrows. Behind the almost simultaneous arrivals of these two forerunners of trans-Atlantic steamship service was an interesting background.
Even in those days prompt mail communication between Europe and America was politically and economically important. The sailing packets made good time to the eastward but a westbound “canvas-back” might take thirty days or more in bad weather. Further, ocean mails were not part of national postal systems but were a matter of private arrangement with the carrier, just as cargo was. Enterprising merchants of the United States would send fast sloops well out to sea to meet incoming packets and take off their own mail. If the master of the packet could be prevailed upon to dawdle a bit before arriving, the possession of news of, say, the price of grain in England a day before others received it might be highly lucrative.
The British Government, which had for some years been maintaining a service of fast mail brigs to Halifax, decided that the time had come to foster a regular trans- Atlantic service by steam vessels, which might not always equal the best speed of the sailing packets but which would be dependable and would make faster west-bound trips.
The hitch in this was that such a service could not support itself. The steamers of that day, before the adoption of the surface condenser, fed salt water to the boilers. To prevent dangerous scaling, the steam pressure could not exceed 15 pounds.5 The jet condenser wasted much heat, and . with the low steam pressure the fuel consumption was around four pounds per horsepower- hour. The bulkiness of the machinery and the amount of bunker space needed meant that little cargo could be carried to meet the cost of the coal consumed. A steamer could not economically compete, on the ocean, with a sailing ship. To meet the situation, the British proposed to pay a subsidy to a steamer service, to offset its extra costs.
Three different groups in Britain sought to be the chosen instrument. One of these was the Great Western Railway, between London and Bristol, whose distinguished engineer, I. K. Brunei, was the son of a French emigre royalist who had worked with Fulton in New York. A second was the British and American Steam Navigation Co. headed by Junius Smith, an American of long residence in London, and backed by the shipbuilding firm of Lairds. The third was wholly in the person of Samuel Cunard, son of a Philadelphia Quaker and agent in Halifax for the British mail brigs.
Brunei designed and built the Great Western, which proved to be a successful and reliable craft. Smith had difficulty completing his British Queen (Victoria had just ascended the throne) and had to charter the small Irish Sea packet Sirius for a daring token entry in the race. Cunard had built nothing, but he knew the right people and his bid of fortnightly service for an annual subsidy of £60,000 was accepted. He commenced sailings in 1840 from Boston with the Britannia, Columbia, Caledonia, and Hibernia. Thus the decade opened with the first regular, scheduled line of trans-Atlantic steamers.6
The satisfactory performance of the Fulton II, plus the interest aroused by the Great Western (against which, as she was sailing from New York, the Fulton was briefly raced) led Congress to authorize three additional steam warships. Two of these, the Mississippi and the Missouri, were commenced in 1842. They were wooden side-wheelers of 1700 tons and about 12 knots speed. Their machinery was designed by Copeland, the engines of the Missouri being direct-acting while those of the Mississippi were of the side-lever type. (A side-lever was a sort of inverted walking beam.) Perry supervised their construction and took command of the Mississippi with Haswell as the Chief Engineer, while J. T. Newton commanded the Missouri with Faron as Engineer.
These two ships were of a singularly happy design. Their machinery was simple, rugged, and reliable. The Missouri unfortunately burned at Gibraltar in 1843, but the Mississippi pursued, largely under Perry, an outstanding career for nearly twenty years, until she was destroyed at Port Hudson in 1862 to prevent her capture by the Confederates.
In 1842 Congress further decided to build a gunboat for service on the Great Lakes. Because it was to operate on fresh water the exaggerated fear of corrosion was diminished and the momentous step of authorizing an iron hull was taken. As the only rolling mills capable of handling ships’ plates were in Pittsburgh, the Michigan was fabricated there and assembled and launched at Erie, the first iron warship in the world and the one destined to have perhaps the longest active life.
In the same year the three sons of Colonel John Stevens, who had followed in their father’s footsteps, proposed to construct for the Navy a powerful steam warship of iron, driven by twin screws and armored with 4-½ inches of iron plate—presumably proof against any ordnance then in existence. This was to be a seagoing vessel and in its concept and special features it was more than twenty years in advance of naval thinking, here and abroad. Congress authorized its construction but stipulated that it should not cost more than the $250,000 appropriated for each of the smaller wooden ships, Mississippi and Missouri. This, of course, was an impossible task, but further difficulties faced the Stevens brothers.
A brilliant Swedish inventor, John Ericsson, had been endeavoring to convince the British Admiralty that a screw-propeller of his design was more efficient than side paddle wheels, as well as being less liable to damage in battle. He also had in his bag of tricks a revolutionary type of engine and a monumental cannon of 12" calibre. Ericsson made little progress with their Lordships but became acquainted with Captain R. F. Stockton, U.S. Navy, who was then in London. Stockton was greatly impressed with the inventor and the originality of his ideas. When he returned to the United States, he induced the Navy Commissioners to proceed with the authorized third steam warship, incorporating into it Ericsson’s various proposals, with the latter to supervise its construction.
One of the first things that Ericsson did upon his arrival in this country was to demonstrate that his gun would penetrate the 4-½ inch armor proposed by Stevens. This threw a cloud on the so-called Stevens Battery and made the Congress even more reluctant to appropriate for it, although Stevens immediately modified his plans to provide for six-inch armor. In the meantime Stockton and Ericsson proceeded with the construction of the new warship, the Princeton.
The Princeton was remarkable for three things: she was the first screw warship completed in the world; she carried the two largest guns then known, and she was driven by an engine the like of which was never seen, before or since. It consisted of a horizontal steam chest of quadrantal cross-section in which the steam rocked a plate back and forth through 90 degrees like a punkah. By means of arms and connecting rods this oscillatory motion was converted to the rotary motion of the shaft. The theory behind this weird contraption—which, after all, worked—was the securing of an engine completely below the waterline.
The Ericsson propeller was six-bladed with a circular band or sleeve about halfway out on the blades. It resembled a large- bladed windmill and was most inefficient (for that matter, so were the early side- wheels), but it gave a starting point for study and development and brought its designer credit that should have gone to Colonel Stevens.
In addition to Ericsson’s gun Stockton had built for the Princeton to his own design a gun of equal calibre. It was this gun which exploded when fired on an inspection trip in 1844, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and several others. Stock- ton was influential politically—he had been offered the secretaryship of the Navy—and managed to divert all blame to Ericsson, with the result that Congress refused to pay the latter for his services or his invention! Ericsson retired in high dudgeon to private practice and swore never to have anything further to do with the United States Government—an oath that he kept for 17 years.
The idea of doing away with the vulnerable side-wheels had occurred to another naval officer, Lieutenant W. W. Hunter. Hunter was neither a constructor nor an engineer. In fact, he seems to have been ignorant of elementary physics. His proposal was to equip a ship with two paddle wheels lying horizontally and recessed into the ship’s hull so that only a portion projected out at either side. He must have had powerful friends because, after experimenting with two small craft, the Union and the Water Witch, he secured authorization for the construction of an iron steamer to be equipped with his patent wheels. This was the Alleghany, the Navy’s first seagoing iron warship.
This ship was completed at Pittsburgh— again on account of the rolling mills—in 1847 and made its way down the river to the ocean. Its hull was almost V-shaped in cross-section and the Hunter wheels were monstrously inefficient in action since the whole mass of water in the paddle boxes had to be trundled around and tended to be discharged radially rather than towards the stern. Hunter received $10,000 as royalty, but the wheels were taken out, the hull rebuilt, a screw propeller fitted, and Pirrie’s “patent, double-vacuum condenser” installed.7 This was the first installation of a surface condenser on any American vessel, and it opened the way to higher pressures by freeing steamers from the use of salt feed.
Meanwhile, the reliability and regularity of the Cunard steamers led Congress to feel that the United States should have an ocean mail service of its own. In the 1840’s the Oregon boundary question was acute and there was a strong anti-British feeling in the country. It was therefore unthinkable to depend on British steamers for this service, but American vessels would face the same hard fact that steamers of the day could not support themselves in trans-Atlantic voyages on their own revenues. The Government would have to make up the deficit. The Post Office Appropriation Act of March 3, 1845, accordingly authorized the Postmaster General to enter into ten-year contracts for the carriage of mails by American steamers on such routes as he considered desirable and after competitive bidding.
Cave Johnson advertised for bids on nine routes, including ones to Liverpool, Havre, Bremen, Havana, and Vera Cruz. The bid for the Liverpool service, submitted by E. K. Collins, the flamboyant owner of a line of sailing packets, was refused as containing too many qualifications. Edward Mills was awarded the Bremen and the Havre contracts at $200,000 and $150,000 respectively, and contracts were let for the Havana service at $50,000 and that to Vera Cruz at $70,000. This action marked our first step in ship subsidies and the first enunciation of the so-called “essential route” principle which forms the basis of our present subsidy act. It also, of course, put our ocean mails on a governmental, rather than a private, basis.
Up until 1845 commercial steamers in the north trans-Atlantic service were limited to the Cunard Line and the aging but dependable Great Western. Junius Smith had completed his second ship, the President, only to have it founder with all on board in 1841, one day out of New York.8 With this loss and no subsidy he withdrew from the competition and returned to the United States. The Great Western Railway, however, not only continued its namesake ship but Brunei designed and put into service in 1845 the ship which rendered all other merchant ships obsolete. This was the Great Britain, 3270 tons, of iron construction, propeller-driven, divided into six watertight compartments and fitted with a double bottom. This ship marked the Industrial Revolution in shipping. The metal hull with its cellular construction not only gave a ship which did not rack to pieces in a sea but opened the way for increased size and gave the rigidity necessary for keeping propeller shafting in line.9
Its ruggedness was shortly demonstrated for the Great Britain was stranded on the Irish coast in 1846 and left all winter to endure the Atlantic storms. The usual wooden hull would have been matchwood in a matter of days, but the ship was floated off the following spring and returned to service and a useful life of seventy years, its final appearance being as one of the hulks at the Falklands from which Sturdee was coaling when Von Spee’s topmasts came in sight.
Meanwhile Edward Mills, who was a promoter and a not a shipping man, sold his Bremen contract to a syndicate including Herman Oelrichs, John A. Iselin, and John L. Stephens, the managing agent for which was a sharp Welshman, Marshall O. Roberts. This group laid down the Washington and the Hermann, wooden side-wheelers of 1270 tons or so. The Washington entered service in 1847 and was, therefore, our first trans- Atlantic steamship.10 The Hermann followed the next year.
The Oregon boundary question was settled in 1846 with all the territory up to the 49th parallel becoming a part of the United States. Congress felt that adequate communication with this region was imperative. In the same year war with Mexico broke out and early operations accelerated the Navy’s appreciation of the value of steamers for transports or cruisers. In his report for 1846 the Secretary of the Navy had urged the construction of steam warships and in the Naval Appropriation Act of March 3, 1847 he was authorized to construct four, at a cost of a half million apiece. In the same Act he was directed to accept the bid of E. K. Collins for a Liverpool service and to contract for steamer service between New York and Astoria, Oregon, via the Isthmus of Panama. It is noteworthy that this action was to be taken by the Navy and not the Postmaster General. It marks the first trend of subsidization from the communications to the defense basis.
The Collins contract, as entered into, called for four steamers of not less than 2,000 tons and 1,000 horsepower to be immediately built and to give twenty sailings a year to Liverpool, fortnightly for eight months and monthly for the balance. The annual subsidy was set at $385,000. In addition Collins was to build a fifth steamer “to be available to the Navy for the carriage of despatches” on a hire basis. Each ship was to be suitable for conversion to a warship, construction was to be supervised by a naval officer and the machinery was to be the same as that in the Mississippi.11 When in service each was to carry four Passed Midshipmen as watch officers. All were to be subject to requisition by the Navy at any time—the first provision for such requisitioning in our maritime history.
Secretary Mason also negotiated with Colonel A. G. Sloo for four vessels to maintain a semi-monthly service from New York to Chagres via Havana for $290,000 a year. On this service not only were the ships to carry four midshipmen as watch officers but they were to be commanded by naval officers, following the precedent set by the British in 1838. Sloo was merely a front man for George Law and Marshall Roberts, who shortly took over his contract. Under this the Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, and the smaller Falcon were built.12
The Pacific leg, from Panama to Astoria, gave little promise of commercial success and only a monthly service was required. This was let to Arnold Harris who promptly assigned it to the great mercantile house of Howland & Aspinwall. With the seizure of California by Commodore Sloat and its cession under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the contract was amended to include calls at San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco. Considerable surprise was expressed that such a wealthy man as William Aspinwall should become involved in what looked like the losing venture of running to undeveloped territory with a subsidy of only $199,000. But Aspinwall had deep and far-reaching plans. He proceeded to lay down the California, Panama, and Oregon and to make arrangements for shipping coal and repair parts to the West Coast by sailing vessels.
The John L. Stephens who was in the Bremen Line syndicate was a wealthy dilettante who had spent some years in exploring the ancient temples of Central America. In 1839 President Van Buren had dispatched him on a special mission to make recommendations as to the best site for an inter-oceanic canal.13 He therefore had exceptional knowledge of the region. In 1846 the United States negotiated treaties with Nicaragua and with New Granada (as Colombia was then called) guaranteeing their neutralities and securing a “favored nation” status. New Granada had given a one year option to a French promoter for a canal across Panama. When this lapsed Aspinwall, Stephens, and Henry Chauncey secured a concession giving them exclusive rights of transmitting the Isthmus by either canal or railroad. They immediately formed the Panama R. R. Co. and commenced the arduous task of building a railroad between Chagres and Panama.14
AspinwalPs first steamer, the California, left New York on October 6, 1848, for the long voyage to the Pacific and thus became the first American steamer to enter that ocean. It put into Panama on January 20, 1849, expecting to pick up mail and perhaps a few passengers. Instead, it was met by a seething mob of prospectors, frantic to reach California. The news of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill had reached the East. For the Isthmus route the dam had burst. What had seemed to be a parlous gamble had become a golconda. In the Civil War this vessel was converted into a Navy cruiser.
The problem facing the original contractors now was to increase their facilities to meet the demand and to keep interlopers out. Almost every available steamer, including coastwise craft of dubious seaworthiness, was pressed into service. Work on the Panama Railroad was energetically pushed. One would-be competitor was paid an amount equal to the subsidy received from the Government, on condition that he kept out of the trade.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had made a fortune with his river steamers and his peculiar business ethics, determined to get into the golden flood. He secured a concession from Nicaragua for the Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company and chartered the Accessory Transit Company for an overland service. He too bought up steamers from inshore runs and sent part of them around the Horn to complete a second California service. The Atlantic leg terminated at Greytown where passengers and mail were transferred to small steamers which ascended the San Juan River and crossed Lake Nicaragua to Rivas. From there an eighteen mile ride by stage coach took them to the Pacific terminus at San Juan del Sur and a waiting steamer. The route was several hundred miles shorter than the Panama route and the land leg more comfortable.
But Vanderbilt’s agents, whose business ethics were much like his own, became involved with the filibuster Walker in an effort to secure political control of the country and freeze out Vanderbilt. This led to serious difficulties with both the United States and the British Governments and resulted in closing down the service. These difficulties, which brought the two countries perilously close to an undeclared war, were eventually resolved by the Clayton-Bulwer treaty.
Meanwhile the trans-Atlantic lines" were experiencing difficulties of their own. Collins had plunged into his task on a lavish basis. George Steers designed his first four steamers the Atlantic, Arctic, Baltic, and Pacific. They were nearly twice the size of the Cunard ships. Commodore Perry supervised their construction on behalf of the Navy and John Faron resigned his post as Chief Engineer in the Navy to superintend the machinery. But Collins was financing the building by borrowing at ruinous rates of interest. Difficulties postponed completion and Congress was obliged to extend his time for commencing service until 1850.
The Navy, too, was having its troubles—troubles which led at last to the firm recognition of the engineer in the Navy. To design the four steam war vessels authorized by the 1847 Act the Secretary of the Navy convened a board of line officers to which Haswell was attached as an afterthought. The Board decided to lay down three side-wheelers, closely following the successful Mississippi—which, it will be recalled, owned its dependability to the long experience of Copeland—but the fourth ship was to be screw-propelled, without benefit of Ericsson. All were to be of wood, although Haswell made a strong plea for iron construction. The Saranac, Susquehanna, and Powhatan were dependable and reasonably efficient craft. With the San Jacinto, the propeller steamer, endless trouble arose.
The Board designed the hull quite without regard to engineering requirements. The space allowed for the machinery was too small and too far aft. Side wheels the Board knew, but tail shafts were beyond their ken. The stern post was a sacred thing, not to be pierced in the center, and it was unthinkable to scoop out enough of the deadwood to permit a 14-foot wheel to revolve in the opening. The solution proposed by the Board was to run the shaft off center and allow it to project past the rudder, which was divided into two parts to permit sufficient traverse.
The effect of a heavy screw revolving at the end of a shaft projecting unsupported for five feet can be readily imagined. It also appeared that John Ericsson had screw propellers pretty well covered by patents and, smarting from his Princeton experience, he promptly brought suit. Haswell was made a scapegoat and dismissed but the repercussions carried out of office the Engineer-in-Chief, C. B. Stuart, a political appointee whose only knowledge of engineering was such civil engineering as was involved in building a section of the Erie Canal. The failure of the San Jacinto led to all future Engineers-in-Chief being appointed from the Chief Engineers of the Navy. This, plus the admission of engineer cadets to the newly created Naval Academy, insured that the engineering viewpoint would thereafter be represented in the Navy with reasonable adequacy.
In 1849 the Bremen line had closed down and the Washington and Hermann were sold to Vanderbilt for the Nicaragua service. The Havre line was variously re-organized: Mills was frozen out, and the service finally undertaken by Fox and Livingston who built the Franklin and the Humboldt, after a shortlived attempt on the part of a French concern to maintain the run. The Great Western had abandoned its participation in Atlantic shipping, but Cunard had increased his fleet to eight ships, giving weekly service alternatively from Boston and New York.
All of these ships and all those on the California service were wooden and all but one or two were side-wheelers. It is amazing today to think of ships with huge, clumsy paddles thrashing across the Atlantic, experiencing alternating stresses as the ship rolled. But side-wheels were used, in part because the propellers of the time were inefficient, but chiefly because of the difficulty of keeping shafting in line in a wooden hull. (A lesson which we had to learn all over again in World War I when the Shipping Board built a fleet of inoperable wooden steamers!)
For, no matter how scarfed and strapped, wooden hulls cannot be given longitudinal rigidity. Even in sailing vessels there is a practical length limit. With the concentrated weight of machinery in a steam vessel the stresses are much greater. Cunard’s success stemmed chiefly from his sticking to small size and moderate power. Collins’ losses were due to the size and speed of his ships. Experience showed the unsuitability of ordinary wooden hulls for steam propulsion, though the heavily-built Navy ships, with live-oak frames, stood up well. Brunei’s Great Britain had pointed to the answer.
In 1850, before Collins had gotten his line underway, there arrived at Philadelphia the 1600 ton City of Glasgow, the first of the Inman Line steamers from Liverpool. This ship and her following City sisters had profitted from the lesson of the Great Britain. They were iron, screw-propelled vessels, fitted to carry not only first class passengers but to accommodate in relative comfort the large west-bound immigrant movement which the German revolution and the Irish famine were directing to our shores. This marked the end of an era, although it was not appreciated for another ten years. The wooden ship, in which we specialized, was on the way out; the iron hull, which we could not economically build, was becoming firmly established.
Finally, effective January 1, 1850, the British Parliament repealed the last of their centuries-old, sacrosanct Navigation Acts, permitting free entry into the indirect trades. Thus was swept away the last of the restrictive shipping legislation which had been accepted as a matter of course for thousands of years. For the first time in history any ship was free to sail to any port of the world. This was a tremendous forward step—the final accomplishment of freedom of trade by water. It opened the way to the great upsurge of world commerce following our Civil War.
So, only a century ago, ended the Decade of Transition. In those ten years the way had clearly been shown to a completely new type of merchant ship and of naval vessel. From a practical standpoint the change from sail to steam, from wood to metal hull, from paddles to screw, from low steam pressures to high, took place in this period. Until the day of the turbine and of the diesel, maritime technical advancement consisted solely of refinements made to the innovations of that decade. Yet neither the Navy nor the commercial fleet took real advantage for fifty years of the road that had been made plain before them.
In the merchant marine the shortcomings of wooden steamers, particularly side- wheelers, were painfully obvious. As they rolled and racked along, threshing their clumsy paddles, they chalked up a grim record of casualties. Besides the loss of the President in 1841 the Union was lost in 1851, the City of Pittsburgh in 1852, the Cherokee and the San Francisco in 1853, the latter carrying a regiment of troops, the Arctic and the Franklin in 1854, the Crescent City and the Pacific (with all on board) in 1856, and the George Law in 1857 with a loss of 423 lives16 and $8,000,000 in gold.
But iron hulls were prohibitively expensive to build in this country17 and our laws did not permit their purchase abroad. Our shipping men had to make do with wood. The California and the Australian gold rushes and the opening of the China-United Kingdom tea trade to American vessels (by the repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1850) had put a premium on a fast type of sailing ship which could be quickly constructed and whose high freights would offset its small capacity and short life. Thus came about the much over-rated “clipper-ship era” which lasted a brief ten years and involved about two hundred ships but which has ever since occupied a disproportionate place in most of our maritime histories. Actually the zenith reached by our merchant marine in 1860 was like the light of a guttering lamp which flares up over-brightly just before it finally flickers out.
Economic factors contributed. The California gold rush subsided and many ships bought for it became surplus. The panic of 1857 wiped out Collins. Congress terminated direct subsidies in 1858. Cornelius Vanderbilt brought out in 1856 the iron, screw-driven Vanderbilt18 of 4500 tons, with which he maintained desultory sailings to Europe, but by 1860 only two United States steamers, the Fulton and the Arago, both wooden side-wheelers, were still in trans-Atlantic service. Most of the withdrawn tonnage had been bought up for a song by that sharp character, Marshall Roberts, who was later to charter them to the Army, as Civil War transports, for around $1,000 a day apiece. The stagnation of the merchant marine, due to many causes, can be summarized by saying that in 1890 one half our fleet was of wood and two-thirds was sail-driven.
In the Navy intelligent progress was slowed or deflected by a combination of political, economic, and military factors. Thanks to the pioneering work done with commercial steamers, steam was firmly established and the role of the engineer was respected if not admired. But the old breed of “stick-and-string” admirals were to cling to masts and sails for another forty years. The metal hull was also looked at askance. The Stevens Battery was uncompleted although the Stevens brothers were keeping the work up with their own funds. The time was to come when Gideon Welles would have paid any price for it as a counter to the armored rams of the Confederacy.
When the chips were down Welles turned to the civilian engineers and builders for the answer. Ericsson, Bushnell, and Merrick responded. The dramatic, eleventh-hour appearance of the Monitor, the ultimate in Ericsson’s concept of “everything below the waterline,” and its inconclusive battle with the improvised Merrimac made an ineradicable impression on a terrified Congress and Cabinet. As in the case of the steam frigates following the Mississippi, Congress decided that what had worked once should be repeated without any foolish experimentation. Monitors were the answer and sixty-two were laid down without further ado—or even elementary calculations. Unseaworthy at best, the prototype foundered at sea, the Tecumpseh sank like a stone when mined at Mobile and the Weehawken swamped while at anchor in a sheltered harbor. The twenty of the Casco class had their decks awash at launching and were never completed as designed.
The unorthodox brilliancy of Ericsson saddled the Navy with a hopeless type of armored warship. The only other ships on the Navy List were the wooden steam and sail frigates. Between the post-war scrimping of the Service by Congress and the inertia of the old-line officers, the Navy was to wait until the late ’eighties to follow once more the path charted for it between 1840 and 1850.
1. The original propellers, shafting, and machinery of this craft are in the Smithsonian Museum. The boiler is interesting as being a semi-water-tube type.
2. The first steamer reached New Orleans in 1811.
3. Rumor had it that the Sirius ran out of coal and had to burn all her accessible wood fittings in order to make port.
4. Both ships were in command of Royal Navy Lieutenants on half pay.
5. The economy of higher pressures was fully appreciated. River steamers, running on fresh water, were already using up to 100 pounds pressure.
6. The British Government, at the same time, subsidized the Royal Mail line to the West Indies and the P&O to Portugal and the Mediterranean.
7. The Engineer in Chief of the Navy, C. B. Stuart, was so mystified by this installation that in his report he contented himself with appending a statement by the inventor as to its workings.
8. It was commanded by the same Lieutenant Roberts, RN, who commanded the Sirius on its first trip.
9. Brunei’s ability to design a metal ship was largely due to his far-reaching studies of iron railway bridges. He went on, of course, to produce the Great Eastern in 1859.
10. The much-touted Savannah only used her engines for a total of eighty hours on her crossing in 1819.
11. Congress couldn’t design a ship’s machinery, but they knew when they had a good thing and took now chances on experiments.
12. Service on these vessels and those which followed was eagerly sought by naval officers who foresaw the coming of steam and desired to familiarize themselves with it. The first commanders of these ships were:
Illinois Lt. H. J. Hartstene
Georgia Lt. D. D. Porter
Ohio Lt. J. F. Schenck
Falcon Lt. H. Rodgers
13. At that time he recommended Nicaragua.
14. This railroad, completed in 1855, was the backbone of both the French and the American Canal projects.
15. The second, the Panama, was brought around by D. D. Porter, who was waiting the completion of the Georgia.
16. Including its Master, Commander W. L. Herndon. U. S. Navy, whose heroism on this occasion is commemorated by a monument at the Naval Academy.
17. The first American iron trans-Atlantic steamers were built in 1871; the first iron trans-Pacific steamers in 1874.
18. In the Civil War this vessel was converted into a Navy cruiser.